Politics & Policy

Christie’s Early-State Momentum Threatened by Debate Relegation

(Andrew Burton/Getty)

Republicans in Iowa and New Hampshire appear to be remembering why they liked Chris Christie in the first place. With three months to go until the GOP begins voting for its presidential nominee, Christie is starting to generate some buzz and look like a solid contender. The question is whether he can hold onto that momentum now that he has been bumped from the main stage at next week’s GOP debate in Milwaukee.

Since he entered the presidential race this summer, Christie has struggled to recapture the energy that fueled his rise to national prominence. With the stench of Bridgegate hanging in the air, and some conservatives still angry at him for hugging President Obama after Hurricane Sandy, in the heat of the 2012 election, Christie often seemed like a candidate who had missed his moment.

But after months of town halls and relentless campaigning, most of it in New Hampshire, Christie is finally starting to see some payoff in the polls. A WBUR/MassInc poll released this week put Christie at 8 percent in New Hampshire, one point ahead of Jeb Bush in what is a must-win contest for both governors. That’s a good thing for Christie, who has been fighting to prove his viability.

“He needed to improve in the polls before they would commit to him, that’s what I was hearing,” state-senate majority leader Jeb Bradley tells National Review. “Now he’s improving.”

The problem for Christie is that while his fortunes have improved in New Hampshire, he remains near the bottom in national polls, low enough that on Tuesday he will appear in the undercard debate with Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, and Rick Santorum. Christie, who has had strong main-stage performances at each of the three prior debates, will likely look very good in that company. But the optics of not making the main stage as voters are trying to whittle down their choices could snuff out his small surge just as it’s beginning.

Christie holds his 30th town hall in New Hampshire on Thursday evening. It’s a format that plays to Christie’s biggest strength: It lets him showcase his outsize personality. As was true at each of the previous 29, Christie will field questions on any topic voters throw at him. From one event to the next, the format inevitably leads him to tell the same stories over and over again. But unlike some other candidates, he never seems scripted.

“One of the things that people will say to me about Christie is you get the impression when he’s answering a question that it’s not talking points. That it’s not something he memorized,” says Charlie Arlinghaus, president of the Josiah Bartlett Center, a free-market think tank in New Hampshire.

#share#And people appear to be starting to listen. A Huffington Post video of Christie talking about drug addiction went viral this week. The video features him telling a story he has often repeated on the campaign trail in New Hampshire, a state in the throes of a heroin epidemic, about a friend of his from law school who became addicted to painkillers and overdosed. The story has clearly struck a chord: It has close to 6 million views on Facebook.

Chris Christie Makes Emotional Plea to Rethink Drug Addiction . . . 

“Somehow, if it’s heroin or cocaine or alcohol, we say, ‘They decided it, they’re getting what they deserved.’”(Read more here: http://huff.to/1LQg27g)

Posted by HuffPost Politics on Friday, October 30, 2015

It’s reminiscent of the way Christie rose to prominence in the first place: through viral videos of him speaking his mind at town halls in New Jersey, usually telling off someone who disagreed with his education policies.

“He still has that ability to kind of reach through the camera and grab you by the shirt collars and make you pay attention,” says Craig Robinson, editor in chief of the Iowa Republican, who adds that Christie is creating some buzz in the Hawkeye State.

Indeed, though Christie does not, on the surface, appear to be a natural fit as a candidate in Iowa, he is making slight progress there. In the last month and a half, as Scott Walker dropped out and Bush’s candidacy began to wobble on its feet, state Republicans started mentioning Christie’s name more and more in conversation. Though there is still plenty of competition in the establishment lane, Republicans can at least see the outlines of a path from which Christie could start to make some headway.

“He is getting a second look,” says Jamie Johnson, a GOP activist who backed Rick Perry earlier in the cycle, and was impressed with Christie’s performance at a cattle call in Des Moines last weekend.

Republicans who speak favorably of Christie’s momentum in the early states say not being on the main debate stage will not do him any favors.

Christie is unlikely to win in Iowa, something of which his team is well aware. But if he can notch a strong finish and exceed expectations in the caucuses, it would send him into the New Hampshire primary with some wind at his back. Christie’s Iowa team is stacked with strong operatives with experience navigating caucus politics, many of whom worked for Iowa governor Terry Branstad, who has not endorsed a presidential candidate. In a caucus state where organization is key, that could help him move ahead of some of the other Republicans in the field.

The timing of this bit of momentum could not be better for Christie, coming as voters are starting to actually tune in and whittle down their choices. But it is unclear whether his sudden progress can be sustained — especially since he will not be on the main debate stage in Milwaukee Tuesday.

Republicans who speak favorably of Christie’s momentum in the early states say not being on the main debate stage will not do him any favors. Many of them have been hankering for the debate fields to be whittled down to only the most serious, viable candidates. For Christie, who finally seems on the verge of convincing voters that he, too, is viable, getting bumped to the kid’s table sends the wrong message.

“There’s a subtle message there. . . . It’s like the political rule-makers telling you this is not one of your choices,” says Arlinghaus.

#related#Still Christie sounded nonplussed by the possibility of appearing in the undercard debate on Thursday. “I’ll debate wherever they want to debate on whatever the important issues I think there are for the country,” he said Thursday in New Hampshire, according to a transcript provided by the campaign. And once the announcement made his undercard status official, he sent a defiant tweet, linking to the Huffington Post video and declaring his intention to keep plugging away.

“It doesn’t matter the stage,” he wrote. “Give me a podium and I’ll be there to talk about real issues like this.”

— Alexis Levinson is the senior political reporter for National Review.

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